What Parents of Kids with Special Needs Want You to Know About the Holidays

by Rachael Moshman

We’ve entered the season of Merry and Bright. People ringing bells in front of the grocery store, carolers bursting into song on the sidewalk, bright lights, smells of cookies, and festive sweaters are part of daily life. While the most joyful time of the year for some, it can be more of a nightmare for many children with special needs. Here are a few of the challenges.

It’s too much: Seasonal festivities can be overstimulating and overwhelming.  Some children deal with anxiety and sensory issues. Just a trip to the grocery store is a lot for some to handle during the holidays. There are heavier crowds, louder music, strong smells of pine and cinnamon, and well-meaning strangers offering holiday greetings. Parties, playdates, and family gatherings offer even more stimulation.

It highlights differences: Seeing other families so easily enjoy the season can add a bit of sadness to the holidays. Parents of children with special needs don’t know what life is like without the need to plan out every single thing they may need to bring to make the day comfortable for their child—plus having multiple backup plans for challenges that may arise. The feeling of being judged by friends and family who may not be able to understand the situation, can make the holidays feel a bit lonely.

It’s just more to do: Decorating, buying gifts, baking cookies, going to parties, and wrapping are fun for lots of people, but often parents of children with special needs already have overflowing plates. Adding just one more task might just make all those juggling plates crash to the ground!

So how can you help these families? Parents of children with special needs shared some thoughts:


“We like to leave while the party is still fun. This means going home before our daughter starts to meltdown. Please don’t try to talk us into staying or feel like you did something wrong. We’re glad you invited us!” 

“We can’t eat all your Christmas goodies. Don’t take offense, but tons of sugary items and other food allergies make eating every treat a no.”

“It’s really hard for us to go to parties or to other houses, but we want to see you.  Offer to come to us instead.”

“It’s really hard for my child to open wrapping paper because of limb differences. They appreciate your gift, and gift bags make it much easier for them to experience without frustration.”

“Gifts can be overwhelming. Experiences for the family are great, such as gift certificates to go bowling or to the zoo.”

“My child isn’t a behavior problem. Please don’t judge my parenting because my kid is tired and overwhelmed.”

“I love it when people offer to take my other children to do the big, fun holiday activities like festivals and parades that are just too challenging for their sibling.”

“Please just leave my child alone until he feels comfortable to come out of his shell. Calling, teasing, picking up, hugging, bribing with food, and calling him a brat does not help. It actually makes it very difficult for his family who has to deal with the fallout.”

“There’s a lot of grief around the holidays. Be sensitive to everyone—adult and child. You don’t know everything anyone is going through.”

“Always ask the parent before giving a child food or drink. You don’t know their allergies or limitations.”

“We still want to be invited. We want to spend the holidays with people we care about. It’s just not always possible in the way others expect. Ask what would make it easier and be flexible and understanding.”

   If all else fails, one mom said, “Please just bring me wine. And pie.”

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